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What Do Evangelicals Believe About Social Justice?: A Brief History

By this time, almost a century after the Civil War, evangelicals had universally conceded the personhood of Black Americans, but many still held to a theology that posited that God had created Black people as inferior beings with limited intellect and moral capacity. Thus, upsetting the social order by forcing integration would harm not only white Americans but also Black Americans. 

This view stood in stark contrast to the Southern Baptist’s Christian Life Commission (now called the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) having officially endorsed racial integration. Nevertheless, the Christian Life Commission later grew quiet on the issue after churches began threatening to withhold funds from the Cooperative Program. Southern Baptist churches threatened the same to Southern Baptist seminaries that sought to integrate. 

Similarly, Methodists in South Carolina moved to create the Citizens’ Council, a grassroots movement that used financial intimidation to keep Black families from requesting that their children be transferred to white schools and which threatened to have their credit cut off at their local grocery stores or their mortgages called in by the bank. 

However, as the Civil Rights Movement continued to make inroads through successive judicial and legislative victories, as well as in the hearts and minds of the American people, explicit and vocal advocacy for segregation among southern evangelicals began to grow more sparse. By the middle of the 1960s, theological arguments against integration were not nearly as prominent as they had been a decade previous. 

Nevertheless, that did not mean that these evangelicals had necessarily changed their minds. Rather, they realized that they must—albeit slowly—adjust to the evolving cultural landscape. To that end, with every ruling that further advanced integration, influential evangelicals sought to forestall its implementation. 

When desegregating churches became inevitable, leaders of the various denominations that had begun merging into what would eventually become the United Methodist Church in 1968 proposed a plan requiring governing boards to consist of at least 25% Black leaders. This was a plan that influential South Carolina Methodists who still quietly adhered to segregationist theology could not abide. 

Among them was William Workman, a Methodist layman, journalist, and staunch segregationist who said that requiring ratios was inherently discriminatory. 

“The problem, Workman argued, was the persistent discussion of race among Christians. What the church needed was simply to ‘eliminate racial distinctions or discriminations in the conduct of Methodist affairs,’” explains Hawkins. “In other words, Workman was calling for ending the problem of race by ending attention to race.”

As a result, the ratio recommendations were removed in favor of a “colorblind” approach of “natural affinities,” “mutual appreciation of merits,” and the “voluntary association of individuals.” As a result, the power structures within the denomination, under the auspices of colorblindness, remained largely white. 

This new colorblind approach eventually served to help unite evangelicals under the leadership of influential figures in the Religious Right, including Jerry Falwell Sr., who turned his attention away from legally ensconcing segregation academies to new social concerns, such as ending abortion and promoting “family values.” 

In his book “The Religion of American Greatness,” Paul D. Miller notes, “The end of the civil rights movement facilitated the formation of a new Christian political coalition, because it enabled fundamentalists and evangelicals who had disagreed over racial integration to come together.” 

And come together they did. In fact, the idea of colorblindness eventually morphed from a clever tactic to forestall integration into a genuine value among evangelicals.